Friday, February 24, 2012

'Blackface' controversy is more than skin-deep

Feb 23, 2012

By Andy Ho

AT A Bollywood-themed dinner for United Overseas Bank (UOB) staff recently, at least five Chinese males appeared in 'blackface' and traditional Indian garb.

Their pictures appeared on someone's Facebook account, which a Chinese woman saw and e-mailed to The Sunday Times. Reacting to the paper's story, the bank quickly offered a perfunctory apology and the pictures were immediately taken down as well.

All's well that ends well? The woman who alerted the newspaper said 'appropriating someone else's ethnicity and treating it like entertainment' offended her.

Counsellor P. Dinesh said it was 'thoroughly unacceptable (for it was) no different from referring to someone of Indian descent as Black'.

However, other readers felt that the 'blackface' get-up should not cause offence here as we do not have the United States' reprehensible history of slavery and racial segregation. It was just a company function where workers were supposed to let their hair down, they argue.

A reader, Mr Raymond Koh, said: 'We do not find skits of a non-Malay wearing a songkok or a non-Sikh wearing a turban offensive or inappropriate.' At the UOB function, non-Indian women without blackened faces were pictured wearing saris, which obviously caused no offence.

Another reader, Mr Cheang Peng Wah, felt it was unlikely that 'any reasonable Chinese Singaporean would be offended if a few Indian Singaporeans were to paint their faces yellow to take part in a Shaolin gongfu-themed event'.

As a blogger noted, Kumar, a cross- dressing entertainer, 'routinely rattles off racial jokes about Malays, Chinese and Indians' with impunity.

Was more going on than the obvious racial mimicry, however clunky the comic device? Perhaps it was speaking to a cultural anxiety underpinned by racial fantasies that may be circulating here today.

On the one hand, political correctness dictates that we all tip-toe around any race issue as if we were walking on eggshells. On the other hand, officialdom insists people identify themselves apodictically as Chinese or Malay or Indian or Others. (Now the bicultural person may declare a hyphenated race but it must still be in terms of these chiselled-in-stone categories.) So there is this racial unconscious pervading every space here.

One notes also that besides the blackface, the Indian garb that these amateurs donned was not the humble dhoti but opulent ones redolent of the Maharajah era. Perhaps they were also taunting the 'foreign talent' in their midst, with the CEOs of a few banks here being foreign Indians?

The Government habitually urges voters to accept that, given our small population and low fertility rate, foreign workers of many grades are needed. Yet, it also feels compelled to respond to voter discontent with the over-competition that the 'foreign talent' policy has led to.

Its response has come in the form of fine-grained policy differentiation between the non-citizen, permanent resident and citizen. But this signals its own 'double bind' in being torn between attracting foreigners and pushing them away just a little. All this has engendered the seeping into our daily conversation of that not-so-subtle question of national origin.

These issues likely trickle down into our sense of identity, which is tugged this way and that by race and national origin. Perhaps the UOB caper was so jarring precisely because it was a full-frontal exposure of all these usually subterranean currents trickling through our collective subconscious.

One may assume that none of the UOB 'blackface' individuals thought through these issues per se before staging their act. But their infelicitous representation of the Indian was a gesture towards the 'otherness' of 'them' as opposed to 'us', however inchoate their notion of 'them' and 'us' might have been.

And 'otherness' in any culture always generates fear and fascination, which is why their facile buffoonery seemingly had so much cultural heft.

Perhaps this episode is uncomfortable in a more subtle manner as well, in that it destabilises the racial identities of locals. We have been made to identify ourselves as being of a certain race all our lives, so we feel we are naturally - biologically - of that particular race.

In fact, there are no genetic markers of race at all. That is, there is no biological basis to race. Instead, race is a socially and politically constructed notion. But this was not obvious until this amateurish blackface minstrelsy revealed publicly what cultural critics call 'the performative nature of racial identity'.

Race is a socially constructed notion that becomes 'real' as we unselfconsciously perform it every day in our social interactions with others of various races.

But blackface makes the notion more obvious for, if a Chinese in blackface (and Indian garb) performing blackness can perhaps pass for an Indian, then the Indian in 'yellowface' (and Shaolin garb) performing yellowness could arguably pass for a Chinese too.

The blackface gambit shows how socially malleable, unstable and changeable racial categories can be. Now, if it also makes us realise the absurdity of our divisive racial ideologies that many may hold privately, then some good might still come out of the brouhaha.

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